Editors note: We're re-posting this after yesterday's mention of Samsung creating their own operating system by Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam. We don't know that anyone is doing anything at this point, but we thought it was a good time to reopen this discussion.
Android. The word itself makes each of us think of futuristic mechanical things that evolve quickly and know no bounds in their abilities. It's a good word, and perfect to describe the devices we hold with such high regard around these parts. And like the androids we think of from Hollywood movies or dusty old science fiction novels, our phones and tablets are slowly working their way into every nook and cranny of our life, taking over one step at a time. We embrace it, we benefit from it, and most of all we enjoy it.
But Android is changing. Very few phones are released with stock Android, and the custom versions (don't call them skins) are getting more and more intricate and polished. OEMs are putting a lot of work into the software running on the phones they sell, making them stand out as their own product. Join me after the break, and let's talk about what Android is, what it isn't, and what might happen in the future.
What is Android? Sites like Wikipedia will call it a mobile operating system based on open-source code, but it goes deeper than that. Apple's iOS is also a mobile operating system based on open-source code, as was webOS, and even BlackBerry10 will be. But we don't think of any of those we we talk about open-source mobile operating systems. Even webOS was closed up pretty tightly, and the average hobbyist didn't have access to all the things they would have liked. Liberal licensing (much like the one used for the Android source-code) allows manufacturers to develop software and not share it back with the rest of the world. When that happens often enough, there's a pretty big rift in the way the software looks and operates when compared to the competition.
We're seeing that with what we call Android today. HTC, Samsung, LG, Motorola, and every other OEM can freely take the same source code you and I can use, make any changes they like, and only have to offer a small fraction of it for public inspection and use. The bits we don't get to see are what makes the magic of TouchWiz, or Optimus UI, and the companies that spent the money to develop them keep their secrets tightly guarded. We're at a point now where very few devices offered for sale run Android, and even Google Senior VP of Engineering Vic Gundotra calls his Galaxy S3 an "Android-based" phone. It's not just the big players and the for-profit folks doing it. The fellows that work hard on the CyanogenMod project have taken Android and made it into something they love, and offer methods and assistance with installing it on a slew of Android and Android-based phones. Yes, they belong right up there beside the billion-dollar names like Motorola and HTC -- they've earned that right, through work every bit as difficult and involved as anything from the big name OEMs.
Samsung is a great example for our purposes here, because it has all the resources and money to lead the way in forking out its own OS from Android. Samsung has Bada, and it's working with Tizen, but it is making all their money (on the mobile front anyway) from TouchWiz. in TouchWiz, Samsung has made all the standard apps -- things like messaging, mail, news readers, and chat apps -- Samsung's own, and we have to imagine the code behind them is pretty different from AOSP. We don't know, because like any of the examples above, they don't have to share it. TouchWiz is not a skin. It's an operating system, just like Sense or Blur -- or Android.
That's not saying that any one flavor of Android is better than any other. Different does not necessarily mean better, or worse -- it means different. What's good for me isn't always what's good for you, and all the OEM Android-based versions offer up some great and unique things. Things that they will want to continue doing. Things that will surely drift them all further apart, as well as away from Android as we know it. All Samsung needs is their own portal to offer apps and media, and they could ditch Google's apps and strike forward on their own. We're seeing those portals become more and more prominent with each iteration of TouchWiz.
It's high-time for us all to realize just how this could play out. We weren't afraid to say Amazon delivered a fork of Android with the Kindle Fire, so we have nothing to fear about Samsung -- or HTC, or Sony -- doing the same thing. I think it's something we're going to see happen eventually, because the big players (like our example of Samsung) surely realize how they could offer unique and "better" ways of doing things if they didn't have to adhere to Google's methods. Right now, every OEM has to follow certain guidelines when developing their platform so that Android apps from Google Play will work correctly. They can't develop things that break all the apps unless they have their own apps to offer instead.
Call this fragmentation if you like. Many of us use open-source operating systems on our home computers. We know first hand that you can't install an application written for one OS, like Ubuntu, to another OS, like Fedora. They both might be Linux, but vendors have taken the core, and changed it in so many ways that programs need compiled to work within their parameters. Android is slowly turning into the same thing, and we don't just mean version numbers. How many time have you went to download a great game and saw comment after comment that it's broken for XXX devices? Developers not only have to code for different versions and different hardware, they have OEM customizations to the OS to contend with in many cases. "Busted on Galaxy S II" almost became a meme last year.
Myself, I welcome these sort of changes. I like to fiddle and will always own a Nexus device. I want to be able to appreciate Android as written. But I also carry around an HTC One X as my daily driver phone. It's not perfect, and it's not quite Android, but I prefer the way it handles the things I need handled when out and about. Maybe we'll never see any of the big players fork off. But if we do, and I really think we will, we don't have to be afraid of it.